Wind Catchers: Marin's Maverick Wind Power Proponents Peter Asmus
by Peter Asmus/ Common Ground
December 19, 2005

Wind Catchers:
Marin's Maverick Wind Power Proponents

by Peter Asmus/ Common Ground

A thicket of vertical-axis wind-energy generators stands ready to churn a passing breeze into electric power.
In 1976, Bob Thomas had a strange dream that featured the stark image of a five-pointed star. His interest in Jungian dream analysis compelled him to probe its meaning. That haunting image, he concluded, represented a mechanical device capable of transforming the energy of the wind into a pulsating stream of electrons. The star of his dreams could power entire cities.

When Thomas' friend, Sam Francis, a world-renowned painter and fan of Carl Jung, heard of the dream, he was inspired to invest more than a million dollars so Thomas could discover whether such energy-saving machines could be built. Francis' investment helped sire the Wind Harvest Company, a tiny West Marin firm that, three decades later, is still spinning out new designs to boost the global rush toward renewable energy.

More than a thousand wind farms operating around the globe now produce 47,000 MW of electricity -- enough to power over 14 million US homes. General Electric, which purchased the assets of the last major large-scale US wind-turbine manufacturer from Enron (the only Enron business not tainted by scandal), has sold 3,000 machines that dot the globe. The biggest can provide enough juice for 1,400 homes. Wind Harvest has three utility-scale turbines up and running in Palm Springs. Their current Windstar design can power a couple dozen homes.

One reason for Wind Harvest's struggles is the turbine's vertical axis design. Unlike the familiar horizontal-axis propeller model built to face into the prevailing winds, vertical axis aeroturbines keep spinning no matter which way the wind blows. Many scientists in the early 1970s touted vertical axis machines for their simplicity and adaptability, but the corporate take-over of solar and wind technology has driven the market towards larger, high-end products. Still, three new vertical-axis designs were showcased at the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference last May. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and the Russian equivalent of NASA are developing one of these machines, which resembles some metal jump ropes turned on their sides.

California and the Rebirth of Windpower
Wind Harvesters Sam Francis, George Wagner and Bob Thomas.
It was in 1922 that Marcellus Jacobs first attached a fan assembly from a windmill water pumper to the rear axle of a Model T to generate electricity. After selling more than $50 million worth of equipment, Jacobs closed shop in the 1950s. Ironically, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" that took the wind out of the industry's sales as cheap hydropower spread to rural America via an ever-expanding electricity grid.

The modern wind energy industry was essentially invented in the 1970s by three Californians -- Jerry Brown, Ty Cashman and Bob Thomas. Then-California Governor Jerry Brown created the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the state's Office of Appropriate Technology (OAT). Cashman introduced the OAT's innovative tax-incentives, designed to encourage alternative energy, and Thomas was brought on as the manager of the state's first wind-power program.

Fortunately, Bob Thomas had more than a dream to rely on. Before his stint at the CEC, he had managed the US Navy's Wind Energy Program. Since its founding in the mid-'70s, Wind Harvest has produced nearly a dozen versions of Thomas' Windstar turbine. In 2001, Thomas discovered that close spacing of several turbines produced a "vortex" effect that accelerates wind speed from one turbine to the next, increasing overall output by 25% in a 16 mph wind. In 2004, Wind Harvest was awarded a US Patent on the design. International patents have also been filed.

The company's latest design, the Windstar 1400 -- a 50-foot-tall, five-turbine array that can produce more than 700,000 kWh per year in a 16-mph wind -- has attracted a number of celebrity investors including actor Rob Lowe, director Jonathan Demme, and Hollywood's ambassador of all things Green, Ed Begley, Jr.

The firm is pinning its hopes on Scotland, which, like much of Europe, is preparing for the approaching "end of oil." While Scotland's North Sea oil fields are running dry, the country is blessed with some of Europe's best winds. Concerns over the loss of "viewsheds" (the visual equivalent of "watersheds" have stalled more than one Scottish wind project, but Windstar turbines can generate power while blending into the landscape. "Our machines can also be built locally." Wind Harvest's CEO George Wagner points out. "You could bring these machines in on a donkey cart. You and I could install one together, that's how simple the installation process is."

"We Need Political Help"
Today, when consumers think about installing renewable energy systems, they typically think of solar panels. Yet small wind-turbine hardware is about half the price of an equivalent sun-power system. While the sun shines everywhere, the fact is that more than half of the property in the US offers enough wind to generate power.

One reason small wind turbines haven't caught on yet is that vertical-axis machines and small home-sized wind turbines have failed to receive the financial investment accorded to solar photovoltaics (PV) and large horizontal-axis propeller turbines.

While solar has attracted investment capital from corporate giants such as BP, Shell and Sharp, no major corporations have entered the small wind market -- yet. Roughly 30 MW of small wind turbine capacity has been installed in the US while 9,000 MW of large utility-scale machines are expected to be on-line by year's end. European and Japanese companies dominate utility-scale wind turbines and solar PV, but more than 90 percent of small wind turbines are still manufactured by small companies based in the US

In California, the nation's hottest market for renewable energy, most state subsidies still go to solar. Since 1999, about $190 million in ratepayer funds have flowed to 12,000 solar systems, while only $3.4 million has been spent on 300 small wind turbines. State subsidies for small wind have declined far more rapidly than those earmarked for solar PV, leading to a dramatic slowdown in the small wind market this year.

"There hasn't been a federal tax credit for small wind turbines since 1985," commented Mike Bergey, President of Oklahoma-based Bergey Windpower. In contrast, large-scale wind turbines have been getting production tax credits on and off since 1992. "Educating local governments about small wind so that they will remove or reduce the permitting barriers takes a lot of time and energy…. The federal government, as well as states, need to recognize the barriers that still exist for small wind," said Bergey.

California, Vermont, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin all offer rebates or buy-down incentives to help reduce the up-front costs of small wind turbines. But, with a price tag of roughly $40,000 for a home-sized 10 kW wind turbine, the federal government may need to step in.

Bergey dreams of the day when the US gets 3 percent of its electricity (roughly 50,000 MW) from small wind turbines. But, Bergey says, "it will not happen unless the federal government re-establishes tax incentives for homeowners and farmers to complement the ones available to corporations for utility-scale wind. Consumer and environmental groups need to push for equal treatment for individuals. We need political help."

Peter Asmus, a Stinson Beach-based writer, is the author of Reaping the Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries and Profiteers Helped Shape our Energy Future (Island Press 2001). This article first appeared in the August 2005 issue of Common Ground magazine.

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